It was a perfect August day at Mount Rainier National Park. Two young families, strangers to each other, were sightseeing on foot along the Nisqually River, where white water tumbles over massive boulders.
Then a 6-year-old Oregon boy slipped from a log bridge into the frigid river. The perfect day turned terrifying.
Today, the family of Kyle Gresham, now 7, has a bond for life with a Snohomish-area family because of Brian Ryner’s courage and split-second decisions. On Aug. 8, 2013, Ryner raced to save Kyle, leaving his own wife and two children at the Cougar Rock Campground.
Ryner, 36, is among those being honored Thursday at the American Red Cross Snohomish County Chapter’s Real Heroes Breakfast. The 19th annual event is scheduled for 7 a.m. in the Tulalip Resort Casino’s Orca Ballroom.
The fundraising goal for the breakfast is $250,000, according to Kristi Myers, major gifts officer for the American Red Cross Northwest Region. That money will stay in Snohomish County to support disaster relief and services for families of members of the armed forces.
The family from Portland — Kyle, parents Doug and Melissa Gresham, 5-year-old Ryan, grandparents and others — will be at the breakfast for a reunion with Ryner and his wife, Sally, who have a small farm in Maltby. The Ryners’ children, Daphne and Douglas, are 5 and 3.
Rather than jump into the Nisqually immediately, Ryner knew he had a better chance of reaching the boy if he ran along the riverbank to get ahead of him. More than a quarter of a mile downstream, he entered the river and was able to grab Kyle. The boy was cold, frightened and banged-up but otherwise all right.
“I’m not a highly religious person, but I do believe he was put there by a higher power at that moment,” Melissa Gresham said. “He made a choice to act.”
“I would say I kept my head,” Ryner said. “I just did what I hoped anybody would do.”
Ryner, an elevator mechanic who has had extensive emergency training, said Kyle’s father helped him by also following the boy along the riverbank.
Sally Ryner recalled seeing the Oregon family before Kyle’s accident. “We had crossed the log bridge, which I thought was a little bit terrifying,” she said. Hiking to a viewpoint, they had passed the Greshams. “I saw that family cross over the bridge. In the middle of the bridge, I saw Kyle slip through. All I could do was scream in horror,” she said.
“Without hesitating, Brian handed me my son and took off,” Sally Ryner said. Knowing her husband would go into the river, she didn’t know if she would see him again.
There was no cellphone service there, so Sally Ryner called 911 from a pay phone.
“When we made it back to our campsite, I could see Brian coming through the woods. He was wet head to toe,” she said. “All he said was, ‘I got him.’ ”
Brian Ryner remembers his wife screaming about seeing Kyle fall. Running back to the river, he saw Ryan, in a red shirt, tumbling in the water.
“I’d just see an arm, then a leg,” he said.
As he ran along the river, the bank was too steep to reach the water. “I jumped on a tree branch and got on the other side” of the river, Ryner said. Kyle was in view but looked lifeless, floating on his back.
At that point, Doug Gresham was on the opposite bank. His position helped Ryner know where Kyle was. Farther downstream, Ryner waded into four feet of water.
“There were two rocks in the river. He needed to come between these two rocks for me to have a chance of getting him. Farther to the right was white water,” he said. At last, “he just ran right into me. As soon as he hit me, I grabbed onto him.”
Ryner figures he was in the water only five seconds before grabbing Kyle. The boy was crying, and Ryner said his first words were, “ ‘Hey, wave to your dad. Let him know you’re OK.’ ”
They got sweatshirts from other campers to warm the boy. After the rescue, medics arrived and checked Kyle’s condition. He had scrapes and bruises but was fine.
The next day, the families met at Paradise in the national park to take pictures. After that, the Greshams went on to a family wedding in Yakima, where Kyle was the ring bearer.
Kyle rarely talks about what happened, but his mother said he will write about it for school assignments.
If they could live that day again, Melissa Gresham said, her family “would do a lot of things differently.” They did get some things right. It helped that Kyle wore a red shirt, making him visible. And he had taken swimming lessons, starting as a baby. “He was not afraid of the water,” she said.
As for Kyle’s rescuer, Melissa Gresham said, “I feel he did what a parent would do for their own child — but he did it for ours.”
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; firstname.lastname@example.org.